Hi there! Today we’re going to be talking about sugar in the unrefined state. For the past few years, I’ve been baking and blogging about unrefined sweeteners and have tried my best to incorporate them whenever possible into my healthier baked recipes. I thought this would be a good time to introduce a guide, as I’m trying to cut refined sugars out of my diet. Obviously very difficult for me because I really like to bake, however I think you’ll notice my use of more unrefined sweeteners in my upcoming recipes.
I want to do my best to try and explain to you the difference between refined and unrefined sweeteners, why you should be using them over granulated or refined sugar, plus show you the different varieties and where you can find them.
So, what’s the difference between refined sugar and unrefined sugar?
Refined sugar is sugar that has gone through a refining process, or chemical process to remove the molasses that’s naturally found in it. Refining sugar removes much of the sugar’s natural minerals and nutrients including phosphorus, calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium. This type of sugar is highly processed and therefore has a higher shelf stable life; it also tends to dissolve more quickly then unrefined sugar, which is why it’s so commonly used in the food and beverage industries.
You can read more about how they actually refine sugar here.
Unrefined sugars and sweeteners include honey, maple syrup, agave nectar, unsulphered molasses, brown rice syrup, coconut sugar, sucanat, fruit, date sugar and many more. These unrefined sweeteners provide more nutrition for our bodies than processed sugar meaning they are all natural and easier for your body to digest and process. Of course this doesn’t mean you should start dumping honey onto your morning yogurt, but it does mean that you should be able to enjoy these in moderation as they actually have some sort of nutritional benefit, unlike most refined sweeteners.
Should you buy organic sweeteners?
When you purchase any of these sweeteners, I highly recommend buying them organic. Not only is it better for you, it’s better for the environment. Look for an organic sticker or ask your grocer to point you to the organic section. I shop at Whole Foods frequently simply because it’s easier for me to find organic product and sweeteners. You could probably find MOST of your favorite product online as well. Organic means they are grown without pesticides or chemicals which means real, delicious good for you food. Try out an organic apple in the fall, and I promise you’ll notice the difference in both taste and appearance.
Below I’m talking about my favorite natural unrefined sweeteners. There are plenty more sweeteners, but the ones below are what I find myself using and baking with the most.
Honey is easily one of the most commonly found unrefined sweeteners out there. When you purchase honey, go for the raw kind; it has more minerals, B vitamins and is close to what bees are actually making. There are a few important things to remember when baking with honey, so pay attention to the following: Since honey is actually sweeter than sugar, you need not use as much if you are looking to replace the sugar in a recipe.
How to replace sugar for honey: For every 1 cup of sugar, you can use about 2/3 to 3/4 cup of honey. Also you many need to reduce the liquid in the recipe a bit as honey adds moisture. Last but not least, you should reduce your oven temperature by 25 degrees F, as honey as browning properties and will cause baked goods to brown quicker.
Other benefits of honey: it may have antibacterial properties, makes a great hair mask, and a cold remedy. Read more interesting facts about honey health benefits here.
My favorite brand of honey is this one by YS Organic Bee Farms. It’s raw, organic and delicious!
2. Pure Maple Syrup
By now, I hope everyone realizes that Hungry Jack syrup is not REAL maple syrup; it’s just sugar syrup! Make sure you check the ingredient list on the maple syrup you are buying if you are confused. The real stuff comes from the sap of maple trees and then is made by boiling it down. Maple syrup is actually one of my absolute favorites to bake with because it isn’t as noticeable in flavor compared to honey, yet still gives off just the right amount of sweetness.
How to replace sugar with maple syrup: For every cup of sugar, you can replace with 3/4 cup of maple syrup and decrease the amount of liquid in the recipe by a few tablespoons. If you are replacing maple syrup for honey, you can typically sub it 1:1. You’ll also want to go for Grade B maple syrup when baking as it has a richer flavor than Grade A.
Did you know that maple syrup contains more antioxidants than broccoli or bananas? By the way, antioxidants are nutrients that protect our cells against hearts disease, cancer, diabetes, etc.
Any pure maple syrup you can find at the store is usually good, but I’ve been eyeing this Canadian one up lately due to all of the great reviews on Amazon!
Have you ever had a chewy ginger cookie? If so, then you’d probably enjoyed the unique flavor of molasses. Molasses is tricky as there are several different types, some of which are refined and some which aren’t. It’s pretty confusing but I referred to the Whole Foods website to help me a bit. Apparently molasses is produced during the refining of sugar. It’s about 65% as sweet as sugar, but if you’ve had molasses, you know how delicious it can be in baked goods.
To explain it better, here’s how Whole Foods explains molasses and the different varieties: “Light molasses is from the first boiling of the cane, dark molasses is from the second, and blackstrap, the third. Though molasses can be sulfured or unsulfured, we prefer unsulfured molasses, meaning that the fumes used in manufacturing sugar aren’t retained as sulfur in the molasses.”
So apparently unsulphered molasses is best however it can be hard to find. I did find one on Amazon that just so happens to be organic. I’ve used this brand before and it’s fantastic!
4. Coconut Sugar
By now you guys know that I LOVE baking with coconut sugar I’ve tried coconut sugar in a few recipes and you can definitely use it in place of brown or granulated sugar. Yes, coconut sugar is still sugar, but it’s not refined and it comes from a plant. It also has a lower glycemic index and high nutrients compared to regular sugar. I found this article to be particularly interesting on the benefits of coconut sugar.
Coconut sugar is made from the blossom’s sap on the tree. The sap is concentrated down to a syrup and then evaporated to form a sugar. There are a few different varieties available, but I wanted to highlight coconut sugar as it becomes more readily available.
To replace sugar with coconut sugar: You can sub 1:1. I’ve had great success doing this in cookies, muffins and other baked goodies.
If you head to Whole Foods, you can see that they’re baking aisle contains a few different brands. Here’s one you can buy online.
Sucanat is unique because the molasses and the sugar are kept together during the process of making it; typically molasses is removed from the sugar during processing which leaves you with granulated sugar. Sucanat is still sugar, just in a pure natural form. It has a strong molasses flavor compared to white sugar yet it retains all of the nutrients such as iron, potassium and calcium. Sucanat is great for baking and is essentially organic, natural brown sugar. The brown sugar you typically find in the stores is molasses added to white sugar; while sucanat is the real deal sugar.
To replace sugar with sucanat: I usually sub sucanat in recipes that call for brown sugar 1:1.
I frequently bake with sucanat instead of brown sugar in my recipes; I love the rich taste and the molasses flavor! Wholesome Sweeteners is my favorite brand.
6. Brown Rice Syrup
While I tend not to use brown rice syrup that much, it’s wonderful for vegans who want to use it as a replacement for honey. Brown Rice Syrup almost has a unique butterscotch taste and is made with brown rice grains and enzymes that are cooked down into a liquid. It’s not as nearly as sweet as sugar, but it’s wonderful to use as a binder in granola bars because of it’s sticky composition.
How to replace sugar with brown rice syrup: Be careful if you try to bake with it, it can make your baked goods brown too quickly. If you want to substitute it for sugar, you’ll need to use 1 1/4 cups of brown rice syrup for every cup of sugar AND you’ll need to reduce the overall liquid in your recipe by 1/4 cup.
I love using brown rice syrup in my cashew almond granola bars. This brown rice syrup by Lundberg is by far my favorite.
7. Date Sugar
Date sugar is SO unbelievably delicious and brings a unique figgy taste to your baked goods. Date sugar is simply dehydrated ground dates. It’s very similar looking to brown sugar and needs to be stored in a cool place in an airtight container as it easily retains moisture.
To replace sugar for date sugar: You can sub 1:1 for any recipe that calls for brown sugar. The downside of date sugar is that it really doesn’t dissolve well. My advice would be to use it in recipes that call for melted butter or warm melted coconut oil.
8. Maple Sugar
Maple sugar is so delicious and definitely one of my favorites! Maple sugar is made from 100% real maple syrup and happens when a majority of the liquid is heated out, leaving… maple sugar! You can use maple sugar in your coffee, on oatmeal, in pancake or waffle batter. The Kitchn wrote a nice article on it a while back which stated you shouldn’t use it in baked goods as the flavor of the maple will be pretty strong. I haven’t had a problem with it.
To replace sugar with maple sugar: You can sub 1:1, just know that the flavors might be slightly different.
Trader Joe’s used to carry maple sugar, but I haven’t seen it in quite sometime. I found a nice organic brand on Amazon.
What are your favorite unrefined & natural sweeteners to use?
Leave a comment below, I’d love to hear from you about why you use one over the other. Obviously there are a variety of unrefined sweeteners, but I wanted to highlight these because they are some of my favorites.
As an FYI, I’m not a nutritionist, but did do research before writing this article. If you have any questions, please consult a nutritionist, doctor or research on your own.
Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure policy.
Funny that this just popped up in my email this afternoon as a friend of mine and I were discussing the same topic earlier today. I just picked up some coconut sugar at Whole Foods yesterday to try to use soon in baking to reduce the amount of refined sugar that we eat in the house. I was not educated yet about sucanat, though, so I will have to pick that up to use instead of brown sugar now. Thanks so much for the breakdown of everything! I wish that my local grocery store carried more of these options so I didn’t have to make trips to two different places for some of my grocery items, but we are still fortunate to have Whole Foods close enough and available to try to help make a difference in what we are eating – even if it costs a little more sometimes. 🙂
Great article! Do you ever use stevia for baking? I’ve tried to use liquid Stevia in baking and making homemade frozen yogurt and it tastes a little odd.
I’m told by my Naturopatic Physician Stevia is the best choice. I’m surprised to not see it on your list.
You know, I thought about putting it on but I don’t really bake with it enough to include it on here. I think that it’s fine to use, except MANY include adding chemicals and other ingredients. I took a serious looked at some of the brands and the ingredients included dextrose and agave inulin. So I think it’s up to you!
Thank you so much for writing this! I’ve been wondering about a few of these natural sweeteners and you answered all my questions 🙂
This was SUCH an interesting read! I’ve been trying to learn more about sugar, this article was exactly what I needed! My bf was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes last year…we’ve made a lifestyle change and have been eating much better for the past 5 weeks…he’s already off TWO of his THREE diabetes meds!! I really appreciate the time you put into researching for this post, thanks so much for sharing!
That’s incredible and cheers to you both eating better!
Loved this blog post! My new years resolution for 2015 was to cut down on my sugar intake. I used sweet n’ low for a very long time and have only recently been introduced to xylitol! What are your thoughts on xylitol Monique? Hope all is well – love reading your blog!
Monique, Kudos to you for preparing and writing this article! Wow! I know this had to be no small feat! My goodness, the detail you put into it. I will use this post like an encyclopedia and store it in my inbox. You are a brilliant and thoughtful writer and we appreciate you so much! We are US military and stationed in England now and they have such healthy sugar options here (No HFCS allowed in the UK). They don’t have Grade A vs. B Maple Syrup as that’s a US label (I just learned this recently. duh! Oops on my part) But they have some yummy maple syrups that pure and delicious. I will save this to order some of the ones I’ve not ever bought before (Maple Sugar?? Yum!) Thanks again and I really enjoy your blog!!
Really great post! I have been meaning to try coconut sugar in my baking.
Organic doesn’t mean they don’t use chemicals/pesticides. Sometimes they have to use more because the ones judged “organic” can be less effective. I thought it means no pesticides/herbicides too, but it doesn’t. Bummer.
How does our body actually process refined sugar versus unrefined differently though? Is it more beneficial to have unrefined because it has different nutrients in them?
How about stevia. Would love to use that in baked goods since it’s the healthiest of all with no Calories. I know it has an aftertaste but the positives outweigh.
Thank-you Monique, this was very helpful! I learned so much between refined and unrefined sugar. I like that you try your best to leave refine sugar out of your diet…that’s what I would like to do too. I find it challenging at times because a lot of baked goods sold outside contain refine sugar. It’s a lot easier if I bake for myself since I have control of what I put inside it…but I don’t always have time to bake at home. I love all your recipes though – so inspiring and encouraging! 🙂 <3
I’m curious what you think about sugar in the raw or turbinado sugar?
My cousin likes to drink her coffee each morning and was wondering if replacing sugar with a natural sweetener would be a good choice. I did not know that there were different kinds of natural sweeteners. I like what was said about how maple sugar can be used as a replacement. Thanks for informing me that it is made of one hundred percent real maple syrup. I will advice my sister to also try this sugar on her oatmeal and in her pancake batter. Thanks.
Perfect – you’re welcome!
Hi Monique. Wonderful article and I especially liked the info you provided on how to substitute them in a recipe. I was surprised, however, that you mentioned agave on your list in the top paragraph. There are several articles out on the dangers of agave syrup. Dr Oz sums it up perfectly: “Agave is actually manufactured using a highly processed procedure that basically strips the naturally occurring agave juice (referred to as piña) of all nutritional value. Shockingly, the end product contains more fructose than HFCS, which makes it extremely dangerous to consume!”
I like Zulka Morena sugar, it’s unrefined but I don’t know how it compares nutritionally to other unrefined sugars. Any insight on it?
I’m not sure! I’ll have to look into it.
I was wondering the same thing! It’s so easy to pick up at the store and economic. It seems very similar in taste and texture to refined sugar but maybe it’s to close to be good?!
What do you think about Fasweet? (I may not have the correct spelling) A friend suggested it. Is it any good and how would you use it as a replacement for sugar?
I’ve never tried it!
Thank you so much for this great article. Just starting a Vegan diet/lifestyle. Dr. Recommended. Really liked how you suggested best ways to use each product. And the pros and cons of each. Looking forward to reading more of your articles.
Your this article is just outstanding. It has revealed new directions. It has opened mine eyes. I am gong to adopt unrefined sweeteners from today in my life. love. regards. all the best. if any support needed do let me know for promoting organic or any other good cause. I thank you sincerely from the Heart.
You bet! Glad you liked reading it!
Which items do you find are most cause effective/affordable for baking with generally? Thank you
Do you have any suggestions for a dry as opposed to liquid unrefined sugar to use when making icing. I have ground up maple sugar in my coffee grinder to make a powdered sugar., but I don’t always want the maple taste or to take the time.
Hi! I love making this paleo powdered sugar using coconut sugar 🙂